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Warning: You’re Making Life Harder by Not Using Mini-Habits

Warning: You’re Making Life Harder by Not Using Mini-Habits

If you want to make changing and improving your life easier than ever, then you want to know more about mini-habits.


It’s almost New Year’s Resolution time, and if you’re like most people, you’re going to make a fatal mistake.

You’re going to commit to massive, sweeping changes, like completely overhauling your appalling diet or going all-in on your quest to “get ripped or die trying” or taming your urge to accumulate as much debt as possible…and you’re probably going to fail like 92% of people resolving to do the same exact things.

Resolving to tackle the whole enchilada is enticing. It feels good to puff our chests out, put our foots down, and know that this is the moment you stop buying the junk food and start saying “no” to the doughnuts every morning. Where you begin showing up in the gym every day and kill your workouts like you own the place and ritually sacrifice the credit cards to free your soul from their evil enchantment.

It never goes like this, though. The pistol fires, the race starts, you close your eyes and run like hell until you’re breathing pepper spray and then open them back up to realize the horrible truth: you’ve moved about an inch. And you signed up for the ultramarathon.

The reality is ripping out some major unwanted part of us and neatly replacing it with something shiny and pretty is about as easy as swallowing the sun. And yet we keep trying it over and over, wondering why we can’t do the impossible.

To be fair, there are people reading this that don’t know what I’m talking about. They just finished what’s sure to be their sixth bestselling novel, which they wrote while motorcycling through South America and running their multimillion-dollar online businesses on 4-hour workweeks. Bless their hearts. (If you’re one of them, just know your friends secretly hate you and can’t help but fantasize about small, bad things that God must have planned to restore cosmic balance.)

But, for the rest of us plebeians, we have to tame our appetites and go for sun-motes instead. That is, tiny, almost inconsequential acts of change are easily digestible, and a steady diet of them is, in time, just as nourishing as the feast.

Here’s how BJ Fogg, creator of Tiny Habits, explains it:

Want the TLDR version? Here it is:

The easiest way to do big things is to learn to do and celebrate really, really small things first.

Sun Tzu said that great warriors win first and then go to war, and that’s exactly what mini-habits let us do. They give us easy wins and a positive position from which to conduct the rest of our campaign.

Want to write a book? Park that away and just commit to writing 50 measly words per day instead. Want to lose 30 pounds? Great. Start with sticking to a proper meal plan for just a week and see how you feel. Want to exercise more? You can start with 10 big ol’ pushups per day.

The key here is these “mini-habits” get you in motion and puts the first law of inertia on your side: once you’re moving, you tend to stay in motion.

And then you realize that you can move a little faster. And little faster still. And the wheels don’t fall off. In fact, everything is running more smoothly than you would have imagined.

Another great thing about mini-habits is you can do several at a time without getting overwhelmed. This puts you on the path to meaningful change on multiple fronts without requiring large reserves of time and motivation.

Simply put, mini-habits let you succeed in numerous ways even on your worst days, and that’s powerful.

Mini-habits can also fit into even the nuttiest of schedules and days. Andre Dubus wrote the inimitable House of Sand and Fog in 20-minute daily installments in his parked car, longhand on a notepad, before driving home from work to join his family for the evening.

20 minutes per day. House of freaking Sand and Fog. I love that and remember it whenever I feel like slacking off.

Mini-habits can quickly and naturally grow in scope. Drinking one less cup of soda per day turns out to be quite easy and you then feel brave enough to forego another. 10 minutes of exercise feels so good that you don’t want to stop.

Don’t harbor hidden higher standards for your mini-habits though. If the habit is 10 minutes of exercise and you do just that, you win. If you do more, you win bigger.

In his short, fantastic book on the subject of mini-habits, that you should read right away, Stephen Guise talks about the importance of consistency in your mini-habits.

Consistency builds willpower and self-confidence, or “self-efficacy,” as Guise calls it, which keep us from getting entangled in the roots of procrastination and despair.

Fail to be consistent and you’ll eventually develop an expectation of failure in anything you do. Cherish and insist upon consistency, however, and eventually you can’t help but believe in the inevitability of your success.

If a mini-habit isn’t working, it’s probably just too big. Make it smaller and let it grow organically.

Committing to one workout per day might not sound like much, but it can get easily lost in the whirlpool of daily living. Trim it down to something stupidly easy and quick and “un-skippable”–a couple sets of bodyweight exercises to failure or a 15-minute walk, for example.

The mini-habit tool is incredibly versatile. You can apply it to just about any endeavor and immediately reap the benefits. For example…

  • Read 5 pages of the book you want to finish.
  • Write 50 words on your project.
  • Do 10 minutes of that exercise DVD.
  • Lift weights one day per week.
  • Practice your yoga poses for 5 minutes.
  • Follow your meal plan for one day.
  • Cook one new recipe per week.
  • Give one compliment per day.
  • Replace one cup of soda with water.

You get the idea.

So, what major, scary change do you want to make in your life? And what’s the stupidest, simplest action you can take every day to nudge the needle in that direction?

There’s your bread crumb of a mini-habit. Pick it up and see where the trail takes you.


What are your thoughts on mini-habits? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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  • Dr. Kelly Mcgonigal talks about this exact problem in her book “Willpower Instinct.” Humans have a tendency to disassociate our present selves from our future selves. It’s easy to imagine our future selves completely overhauling our lifestyle and bad habits, because, well, he/she’s just some other person who will take care of it for us later…. Until the future comes, and we realize our future self is just us… with the same problems and vices as before.

    I’ll go on record saying that using motivation and willpower stinks. It rarely works in the long run. Even if it does work you end up being your own perpetual drill sergeant and making day to day live miserable for yourself.

    I’d much more advocate for making it as easy as possible to achieve your goals and require as little discipline as possible. It’s a precious resource that takes years to train up and grow, just like gym gains. Spending willpower and discipline is like spending money… you gotta make each dollar count and not spend any more than is absolutely needed.

    I also think having action oriented habits is the key. It puts 100% of the power on you. A habit of “I’m going to eat healthier and lose fat” is bad because it’s nebulous and doesn’t define a clear action you must take. Alternatively, a habit of “I’m going hit an average 20% caloric deficit this week, which will burn fat” is a great habit because it’s specific and 100% in your control.

    Another idea I just had…. I think the best “mini-habits” are habits for not doing things. It’s always easier to not do something than to do something. For example, one of my new habits is not looking at any screens after 10pm and reading so that I get tired and fall asleep on time.

    • Michael Matthews

      Great comment Pete.

      Did you read TWI based on my recommendation? I plugged it a month or so ago in a Cool Stuff. 🙂 Great book.

      One thing to remember from TWI is that research shows that people that don’t believe they run out of willpower don’t experience the “willpower fatigue” that many others complain about.

      Yup mini-habts work equally well for not doing things.

      • Yea I did see it in there. It was also recommended by a lot of other sites I read so I figured it was worth the read. Lots of great takeaways from the book, particularly in regards to diet and exercise, where willpower seems to be a highly discussed and prevalent problem for everyone in some way or another.

        • Michael Matthews

          Ah cool. Yeah I liked it a lot. I’m addressing the subject in depth in the second editions of BLS and TLS, so that’s one of the books I read on the subject.

  • wayneo

    Check out this little habit forming device:


    I heard an interview with one of the promoters on the Art of Charm (got into the podcast through your interview with Jordan Harbinger) episode 337. It seems really unconventional, but pretty cool too.

    • Michael Matthews

      Hah this is great! I emailed them and they are going to send me one to try and review and give away. Early next year they said.

      • wayneo

        Wow, I’m jealous. I’ll be looking forward to that product review, and also the give-away. I’m going to be starting a cut early next year and want to use it to wake up an hour earlier and start my day with some fasted cardio, but I’ll hold off until your review to see how effective it really is.

        • Michael Matthews

          Haha cool. 🙂 Something tells me you don’t need a widget to wake up earlier…

          • wayneo

            Yeah, I have developed a lot of good habits since reading BLS in regards to diet and exercise, but I still tend to stay up a little too late watching sports or reading, I don’t really want it as an alarm clock in the morning, but rather as a motivation to go to bed earlier. Getting way too involved in a project before bed is a habit I am still yet to kick, I’m wondering if this thing will help shock me into an earlier bedtime and maybe help turn my brain off sooner.

          • Michael Matthews

            Ah okay. If you took it incrementally, I’m sure you’d be okay. Going to be 10 minutes earlier every 3-4 days or what have you.

          • Samir Majhi

            An infallible method is to hold your breath in spurts of 30 s or 1 min till you feel sleepy.

  • Johan

    Hi Mike. I have been eating right (like 1500 calories per day)(myfitnesspal) for 10 weeks now. The first 7 weeks I have trained with weights etc and lost 10 kg! This past 3 weeks I followed your training guide and also ate 1500 calories and lost nothing. I also do crossfit every morning and still nothing. I weighed 120kg’s and now 110kg. What do you think am I doing wrong?

  • Hi Mike, thanks so much for mentioning Mini Habits! As a huge fan of “Bigger Leaner Stronger,” I’m honored. I’ve put on a few pounds of muscle (and counting) because of your book!

    Consistent exercise had evaded me for 10 years. Then I started an exercise mini habit (one push-up a day), which decreased my resistance over time and exercise became habitual. After that, your book helped me take it to the next level. “Mini Habits” and “Bigger, Leaner, Stronger” complement each other quite well.


    • Michael Matthews

      You’re welcome and hah, small world! Glad to hear you’re putting BLS to good use. 🙂

      Let me know if you’d ever like to guest post on MFL. I’d love to feature something from you!

      • I haven’t been guest posting lately, but that sounds great and I’ll keep it in mind!

        • Michael Matthews

          Sounds good! 🙂

  • Samir Majhi

    I tend to jump into things and gradually build up a habit. Like running, lifting weights, kickboxing, writing etc. My main problem is sticking with things when I get used to them. Writing the first drafts is always exciting, but expanding, editing and finishing never happens!

    • Michael Matthews

      It’s definitely a great way to get rolling and yes, persistence is the next step. 🙂

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